Starting Over - Part 2

In a series about bringing an old boat back to life.

After 38 years it was time.

The outdrive wasn't replaced. It was renovated.

The boat, a 1970 18-foot Sutphen Gran Sport ski boat, was trailered to Supreme Marine & Exports Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for work on transom rot, repairing stringers, new upholstery, striping, repainting the engine and replacing mounting hardware. Bob and Beth McCann, owners of the boat, say the decision to spend the money was easy; the boat had been in Bob's family since 1971 and was given to them as a wedding gift. When they looked at their 11-and 14-year-old daughters, the idea of passing the boat to yet another generation became the motivating factor.

But there was a lot to do before that could happen.

"When I first saw the boat," says Tony Fernandez, owner of Supreme Marine & Exports Inc., who was given the job of bringing the Sutphen Gran back to life, "I looked it over and knew this was going to be a lot of work. But then I looked at the McCanns and I knew this boat had a lot of sentimental value for them besides money."

Tony inspected the 318 Chrysler engine with a Volvo outdrive. In his mind, he knew a different combination would work fine and that meant a complete replacement of both. It was one of his first suggestions and it went nowhere. The McCanns wanted to keep the engine and outdrive for nostalgic reasons "I understand that keeping a boat's originality makes it interesting," he would later say. "But the Volvo/Chrysler setup was a joint venture and getting parts was going to require a lot of work." Tony knew a couple of people in the area who "have been around forever and usually had a handle on where old parts could be found." Phone calls and faxes went back and forth and, after a week or so, the parts they couldn't locate, Tony found on the Internet. Once the search was completed, it became a matter of waiting for the parts to be delivered.

"I also saw the heavy oxidation on the aluminum valve covers, the carburetor and the engine block. All of this was going to have to be replaced because the moisture had made these engine parts unusable." Usually, the first hint of oxidation can be fixed with a few squirts of WD40 or a corrosive block product on the metal surface. But because the boat had spent a few Fort Lauderdale summers outside, the oxidation was extreme. The fact that the engine, transom, stringers (long beams that support the floor) and flooring were all sitting under a canvas cover for a long period of time required a lot of attention to make them right again.

Too much oxidation because of a canvas cover that wasn't removed.

"It's a common mistake people make," observes Tony who has seen all too many repair jobs caused by excessive moisture from a boat cover. "Covering a boat in the summer can make it like an oven. It becomes a steam box because the humidity is trapped inside, the temperature is changing, mildew is formed on everything and the interior is sitting in a sauna for a long period of time. I can't stress enough how important it is to occasionally let the boat air out if it's sitting for a while. Take the cover off."

"I noticed the transom had a lot of weak spots," Tony said. "The bulkhead in front of the motor had the same problem as did the stringers and the floor. It's called wood rot and it's the result of moisture getting inside past the fiberglass." One of the first tests Tony does on a boat is to lightly tap the hull with a small hammer, taking note of where supports are located but listening for any changes in the sounds of the taps. A hollow sound indicates "a soft spot in the wood" and requires "digging it out" or replacing the entire section. Like a surgeon removing cancerous tissue, all of the rotted wood has to be removed because leaving even the smallest piece will begin the decomposition all over again.

The transom was rebuilt using 3/4-inch marine plywood that was reinforced with fiberglass, then bonded with a second piece of plywood and re-glassed again. "I make it stronger than it was when the boat was built," Tony boasts.

Replacing the transom, the stringers and flooring would typically take about two-and-a-half weeks of work alone. Tony and his wife Elena have two other workers in this family-owned business. He could hire more people and increase the boats being worked on at the same time but that's not something Tony wants to do. "By having more people, I lose quality control." This part of the job took almost a month.

Tony brought an upholstery expert with him during the first inspection of the boat as it sat in the McCanns' yard. Discussions were held about color and materials and all agreed it would be a mistake to use the same pattern and fabric that had been on the boat since it was built in 1971. But before the upholstery color could be selected, there had to be agreement on the hull color. It is always a moment that makes Tony look back and remember a few customers and, worse, their selections of colors, inside and outside the boat.

"I remember a guy who brought his small sailboat in and wanted it painted. I gave him a book with colors that were available and he went through it and when I came back to see what he'd picked, his finger was on a single color-flat black. That's what we did. Flat black. He's the customer."

The McCanns selected a mix of red and white for the upholstery because they had already decided the hull would be red with a white deck and white below the waterline.

"Back when this boat was built, red was red and white was white and that was it," Tony recalls. "Today, there are so many different shades available. There are lots of choices and combinations."

Tony has always been attracted to older boats. He's been in the boat repair business for 33 years and, as he is quick to say, "I'm just starting to learn." He owns a 1962 25-foot Bertram that was completely restored in his shop during down time. "It had a baby blue color on the hull and I didn't like it at all. I just did not like that color at all, despite the fact it was an original color. So I repainted it with a lighter shade. Now, I can't tell you the number of brand new boats that are being built with that original baby blue color!"

So Far

If all goes according to plan, and in the boat repair business that never happens, the McCanns will have their restored boat in the first week of August. Tony says he's in the business of "building a new boat in the shape of the old one." He becomes attached to the boats being brought back to life. And once they go out the door, the best reward is seeing them out on the water.  

Read Starting Over, Part 1

Read Starting Over, Part 3

This article was published in Trailering Magazine.


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